Environmental and public health groups welcomed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s acknowledgement that Bexar County’s air has levels of pollution considered harmful for people with lung conditions.

Some state and local officials, however, decried the EPA’s decision, criticizing its potential effects on San Antonio’s economy. The move likely will slow the pace of transportation projects and increase costs on industrial businesses moving to or expanding in Bexar County.

For some public health advocates, that’s a cost worth bearing.

“EPA officials made the right decision for our community,”said Adelita Cantu, an associate professor at UT Health San Antonio’s School of Nursing, in a statement that described what nurses see from patients and families coping with conditions like asthma.

“The feeling of helplessness that a parent feels when they see their child not being able to catch their breath, the horrible coughing,” Cantu said. “The experience is real and too common.”

Elena Craft, senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), called the decision “a positive first step for reducing air pollution in Bexar County.”

“It could prevent dozens of preventable deaths and thousands of hospitalizations each year,” she said in a Wednesday statement.

EDF was part of a coalition of Democrat-led states, environment, and public health groups that sued the EPA over its implementation of the 2015 ozone standard. A judge had ordered the agency to make a decision on San Antonio’s air by Tuesday.

In their decision document, EPA officials acknowledged efforts by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and local officials to show that San Antonio doesn’t need any additional oversight to clean up its air.

These efforts weren’t successful. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said county leaders “are extremely disappointed and will examine every possible remedy.”

Diane Rath, executive director of the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG), called the EPA’s policy an “arbitrary regulatory burden” that ignores San Antonio’s progress on improving its air. AACOG’s studies on San Antonio’s ozone levels became a part of the debate over the need for stricter oversight.

For months before the decision, Rath had been in talks with Abbott and U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-San Antonio) to try to stop the EPA from imposing additional regulations on the city.

“I so appreciate all of the support that we’ve received from Gov. Abbott and Congressman Smith,” Rath said. “Both of them have been tireless in their communicating to EPA on our behalf.”

Abbott’s staff did not return a request Wednesday seeking comment.

In a statement, officials with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the State’s environmental regulator, said the EPA’s move “creates an unnecessary burden on the residents, industry, and governing bodies of Bexar County without any associated benefit from an air quality perspective.

“The EPA’s blatant disregard for Cooperative Federalism in not supporting Governor Abbott’s recommendation shows the disconnect between states and Washington, D.C.,”

Rath, appointed by President George W. Bush as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s departure may have played a role in the EPA’s decision.

Pruitt resigned from the agency in early July amid ethics scandals. Deputy administrator Andrew Wheeler took Pruitt’s job on July 9.

“The outstanding fact we will never know is the impact of Administrator Pruitt’s resignation,” Rath said. “Whenever you have a change in an agency’s top official, that has reverberations throughout an agency.”

In its decision document, the EPA indirectly referred to AACOG’s studies regarding San Antonio’s improvements in pollution levels and the effects of emissions drifting in from other countries.

Those studies didn’t sway the EPA’s decision, but they “may provide an avenue” to help state officials show that San Antonio’s air is clean enough to meet the standard by 2021, EPA officials wrote.

San Antonio City Council member Ana Sandoval (D7) said local officials had thought because of the EPA’s delay and Abbott’s intervention, the City might get a break.

“But ultimately the law was upheld, and now it’s time to do the work,” said Sandoval, who previously worked on air quality issues for a government entity in California’s Bay Area.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s statement Wednesday called the EPA’s decision “no surprise.”

“The science showed clearly for several years that our region has been teetering on the edge,” he said.

Local monitoring sites that gather data on air quality showed that San Antonio’s average ozone levels exceeded the federal standard over a three-year period from 2015 to 2017.

Nirenberg pointed to local efforts to reduce emissions, including passing anti-idling ordinances for heavy vehicles and CPS Energy shifting away from use of coal. He said that a “modern mass transit system” the City is planning will continue to improve San Antonio’s air.

“We’ve done a lot of the work already,” said Sandoval, who is leading a voluntary carpooling initiative for downtown City workers. “I just think we have to keep at it.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the Rivard Report's environment and energy reporter.